Political Hay

A Tale of Two Presidents

A plague on at least one of their houses.

By 5.21.10

The Plague, by Albert Camus. Remember that book? It is a gritty rendition of the last major outbreak of bubonic plague, which took place in Algeria in the early 1950s. I read it as a teenager and remember no details, only the mood, heavy but hurtling forward, like a boulder in an avalanche. I particularly recall learning here the word "recrudescence." Now, an insight I once experienced concerning that book helps me to understand the turnabout in Democrat fortunes.

The facts themselves are startling. The party enjoys dominant leads in both the House of Representatives and the Senate of the United States. The Presidency went Democrat as well, canceling most of the checks and wiping out most of the balances. The powers that had become went ahead and pushed through a vague bill doing something vague to the health-care system which in some vague way will insure everyone in the country, vaguely cutting costs and vaguely helping the deficit long-term. The powerful head of the Congressional Appropriations Committee, long-time Wisconsin Representative David Obey swung the gavel to announce passage. He used the same gavel that had banged Medicare into existence. He capped that triumphant moment a month later by announcing he would not run for reelection. Huh?

More examples of such events occur each day. Last week a 14-term Democrat Congressman from West Virginia lost a primary to an opponent who stressed his opposition to the health-care bill. Powerful Senators Dodd and Dorgan are not risking their egos in bruising contests and Bayh has taken a bye on his run as well. The Republicans are ahead 7 points in the general polling preference for which party should control Congress.

It is easy for conservatives to say they told you so, so they do, because they did. But in truth the answer is not as simple as they think: the public opposed the bill, the politicians passed the bill, the public will make them pay. In real political terms, things do not generally work out that way.

Bill Clinton, who knows a thing or two about politics, actually was right when he told the Democrats the health-care bill should help them. The logic goes like this. 1) Midterm elections have low turnout. 2) The base of the party in power is generally disappointed by the gap between the promise of victory and the reality of governance. 3) The base of the party out of power is hungry, and angry. 4) Consequently, the out-of-power party gets higher turnout and wins back seats. 5) The only solution is to excite the base of the party in power by giving them a long-sought legislative achievement. 6) With two energized bases squaring off, and independents sleeping through the midterms, the elections can be fought to a draw and the party in power buys a solid year-and-a-half of total domination until the next Presidential election heats up.

So where has the Clinton formula gone wrong? It is not that the doctrinaire Democrat base is insufficiently jubilant over the health-care victory. It is because of the independents. The independents have suddenly arisen like the zombies in a horror movie and are throwing their votes to Republicans in unprecedented quantities. You see 70 to 30 leads for Republicans among independents in states like Massachusetts, an eventuality no political consultant could possibly have anticipated.

I think the answer is that the press overplayed its hand. It has thoroughly abdicated its role in questioning government when Democrats are in office. The same press crew that challenged Bush on the economy when there was 4.6% unemployment now reports as wonderful the fact that unemployment when up from 9.7 to 9.9 in April. This proves more people are optimistic enough about the future to re-enter the job market! Imagine if we hit 11 or 12, we will have to send a ticker-tape parade down Wall Street.

This tells the independent voter there is no longer a contest between Democrat and Republican. There is a contest between charismatic leaders surrounded by naïve sycophants versus practical leaders surrounded by skeptical interrogators. The independent has to vote Republican not because he buys the ideology but merely because he thinks it healthy to have a guy who is challenged rather than venerated.

This is like the realization I had with The Plague. After I had been assigned it in a college literature course I had a friend who had to read it for medical school. It suddenly hit me: we are reading two separate books. I am reading a work of literature and he is reading a work of medicine. We have gotten to that point with the Presidency. It is no longer one job. There are two distinct jobs of Democrat President and Republican President. One walks into the press room to meet the lemmings while the other must face the jackals.

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About the Author

Jay D. Homnick, commentator and humorist, is deputy editor of The American Spectator.